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Observations Of China, From Behind The Wheel

China today is the world's largest producer and consumer of automobiles. The increasing prevalence of the car is creating major social, environmental and economical changes in nearly every corner of the country

Back in 2001, just as China's auto boom was beginning, New Yorker writer Peter Hessler decided to join the nearly one thousand people who registered to drive each day in Beijing alone. He spent the next seven years road tripping around China to see just how the car was transforming the country.

His new book, Country Driving, details his observations from the road. It begins with his 7,000-mile road trip, following the Great Wall across northern China.

"Along the way, I would stop in villages, and ... it was really sort of sad because so many of these places are losing population to the south," Hessler tells NPR's Melissa Block. "This is basically the story of today's China ... that you have an estimated 140 million people who have left the countryside to work in factory towns, work on construction crews. Often the only people you see are very old people who no longer work, or the children, the youngest people who are still too young to go out and find jobs."

Changes In The Countryside

Initially, Hessler says, he wanted to get a driver's license in order to escape periodically from the bustling city of Beijing and the intensity of living among 13 million people. Eventually, he sought more permanent peace and quiet by renting a house several hours outside of the city.

Pretty much every little thing that we're buying, even the pieces of things -- to somebody in China, that is an entire world of ambition and competition, of risk and opportunity.

In 2002, he rented a house in a remote and traditional village nestled along the Great Wall. The road leading into town was made of dirt, and the population was about 150 people.

"When I moved in, there were still two old women in the village who had bound feet," he says. "There are ways in which it was like going back in time."

But as the automobile boom began to touch all parts of China, the feel of the village rapidly changed. The road into the village was paved the year after Hessler moved in, and suddenly visitors from Beijing came to see the countryside and the local section of the Great Wall. In response, villagers began to open businesses to cater to the newcomers.

Hessler saw household incomes spike from $250 to more than $800 in a time span of five years.

"For them, this is a 100 percent positive thing," he says. "They don't have nostalgia for the old days."

But as an outsider, he says he noticed a few of the downsides of increased wealth and development, reminiscent of life in the United States.

"When there is this rapid pace of change that we have seen in China, it puts a lot of pressure on people," Hessler says. "They're continually having to adjust to new opportunities, new situations, new challenges."

And some of those new opportunities are having a detrimental effect on health. Hessler says he saw children become sedentary as cable television was introduced in the village, and adults pick up smoking, which is perceived as a status symbol.

"That's what middle-class people do," Hessler says. One man he met never smoked when he was a farmer, "but now that he was doing business in China, you smoke if you're doing business, because you give cigarettes to clients and to guests and to people that you're doing business with."

A Postcard From The Industrial South

Hessler also traveled extensively in China's industrial south, watching as factory towns sprung up practically before his eyes. He passed through entire cities devoted to making buttons or playground equipment.

"There's a place in China that makes one-third of the socks on Earth," Hessler says. "Everybody's manufacturing in this part of the south."

To get a closer look at what China's industrial evolution involves, Hessler got to know two entrepreneurs, and followed them through the process of getting a factory up and running.

When they finally got to talking about their product, Hessler realized their entire industrial apparatus was devoted to the manufacture of tiny nylon-covered steel rings that connect bra straps.

"You sort of realize all of this energy, this huge amount of investment from these two people — they have all these workers, they've got a big space, they're getting all this equipment — and it's all going to create something that we would take for granted," Hessler says. "Pretty much every little thing that we're buying, even the pieces of things — to somebody in China, that is an entire world of ambition and competition, of risk and opportunity."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.